GRANTS -- A judge on Wednesday granted a state request to take testimony next week from a witness who has charged that members of an isolationist religious sect in Cibola County have abused children.
The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has been trying to take into protective custody two children in the Aggressive Christianity Mission Training Corps, which has a compound in remote western New Mexico near Fence Lake.
The agency also wants to talk to any other children in the group, which some law enforcement officials have described as a cult. But the group has sent its children into hiding, police have said.
District Judge Joseph F. Arite agreed to the state's request for an expedited deposition. However, he denied a request by CYFD to hold members of the sect in contempt of court for failing to turn the children over to authorities.
Arite earlier had issued a state-sought order for the sect to turn over the children Feb. 7.
However, the state agency failed to obtain sworn statements that sect members had been served with the order and that they had failed to turn over the children to the state, Arite said.
The judge left the door open for the state agency to obtain the statements and to ask again that the sect members be held in contempt.
The state's rationale for attempting to seize the children hinges on statements from a single witness, a lawyer for CYFD said in court Wednesday. That witness is a former sect member whom law enforcement authorities say has a history of making unfounded allegations.
The woman, identified by law enforcement officials as a transient whose last name is El Phalen, initially made her allegations to Albuquerque television reporter Darren White, a former secretary of the Department of Public Safety. She said the children were sexually abused and one was intentionally burned on the hand.
El Phalen refused to cooperate with child welfare agents shortly after the television interview in December, but she has since talked to authorities, CYFD lawyer Hillel Katzir told the court Wednesday.
Katzir said El Phalen is planning to leave for Florida in the next few weeks. He said it is important that she give her testimony before leaving the state.
When authorities went to the Aggressive Christianity Mission Training Corps compound Jan. 28, they were told by sect members that the children were on a field trip at an undisclosed location in Arizona.